A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Angel Investors

sun shines over the Blank Center at Babson

On the second Tuesday of every month, the angel investors of Walnut Ventures gather on the campus of Babson College. 

The investors are interested in startups in the earliest stage of raising funds, says Phillip Lachman MBA’15, the group’s treasurer. Typically, entrepreneurs pitch to Walnut Ventures once they have outgrown their initial supporters, or what Lachman calls the four F’s: family, friends, faculty, and fools. “After you exhaust the four F’s, then you come to a place like Walnut Ventures,” he says. 

At Babson, in a teleconference room on the first floor of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, three or four entrepreneurs pitch to Walnut Ventures during the group’s Tuesday meetings. Besides the entrepreneurs and investors, those meetings also include another key group in attendance: students.  

For Babson students interested in the investing process, Walnut Ventures offers an open-door invitation. Students can watch as entrepreneurs pitch their startups and then, later, when the entrepreneurs leave and the investors discuss their venture behind closed doors. “It’s like being a lawyer in the jury room,” Lachman says. “Students are welcome to listen in.”  

Investing in early-stage companies is a risky business. The odds are long. In these meetings with Walnut Ventures, students are given a behind-the-scenes view of startups seeking their first big investment on the long, challenging road to success. 

“The next Amazon, the next Tesla of the world—they always start somewhere,” Lachman says. “Someone has to be the first to write that check. That first dollar has to come from somewhere.” 

A Long Relationship 

Walnut Ventures has had a long relationship with Babson. The group, which was founded by investor Ralph Wagner and has about 25 current members, has been holding its regular meetings at Babson for more than 20 years. “We want to be a resource for Babson,” says Lachman, also the senior program manager of ClearMotion, an automotive tech company working to improve vehicle ride and handling performance. 

Phillip Lachman
Phillip Lachman MBA’15, treasurer of Walnut Ventures

In its meetings, the group has an informal, friendly vibe that is welcoming to entrepreneurs. Lachman enjoys hearing their ideas. “You see new concepts, new business models,” he says. The investors appreciate that pitching can be intimidating, so they try to be helpful. “Even if we don’t write a check, the ecosystem in Boston is quite small,” Lachman says. “We may steer them to other groups that may be a better fit.” 

Alyssa Keith ’24 is a Babson student who has stopped by on a Tuesday to watch the Walnut Ventures investors in action. She plans to pursue a career in environmental, social, and governance investing and eventually hopes to start her own business. “I wanted to attend to not only see how sustainable ventures were screened through a profitability and opportunity lens,” she says, “but also to better prepare myself for my long-term goal of having my own venture.” 

As she listened to investors talk behind closed doors after a pitch, she saw how they each bring different concerns and experiences, not to mention different attitudes toward risk, to their evaluations. One investor, for instance, may be troubled by a lack of experience on a venture’s board of directors, while another may not see that as a major point of concern. “It made me reflect on what kind of approach I want to take in my own career,” Keith says. 

Only Minutes to Impress 

Every year, a Babson MBA student has the chance to be an intern with Walnut Ventures (Lachman started as an intern with the group), and Jillian Campbell MBA’24 currently serves in that role. She has watched them work often. In a short amount of time, Campbell says, the group is able to understand the core of the entrepreneur’s pitch and ask pointed questions. “I have learned that a chatty room after a pitch is a good sign,” Campbell says. “Silence means the group is most likely uninterested.”  

After a pitch, the group’s discussions typically center around one of two things: the venture’s viability and the entrepreneur’s coachability. “Coachability and presence go a long way,” Campbell says. “Even if members don’t agree with the current business model, they will express interest and follow up if they believe in the entrepreneur.”  

“The next Amazon, the next Tesla of the world—they always start somewhere. Someone has to be the first to write that check. That first dollar has to come from somewhere.”
Phillip Lachman MBA’15 of Walnut Ventures

Nathan Ruff MBA’23 is an entrepreneur who has pitched the investors at Walnut Ventures during their Tuesday meetings. He and Anthony Gatti MBA’24 are the co-founders of PetPax, a health and wellness company for pets. “We are always looking for opportunities to pitch the business and get the word out,” Ruff says. 

Ruff personally experienced the informal nature of the meetings, pitching only after sitting and chatting with the investors first. “It was a very casual experience, which was refreshing,” he says. “I was expecting it to feel more high stakes, but they deliberately have a laid-back feeling so that business owners can feel at ease.” 

The meetings may have a laid-back vibe, but that doesn’t mean entrepreneurs can be ill prepared. They must be confident and ready. For any Babson student watching, that is a big takeaway. “You often only have 10 to 20 minutes to impress,” Campbell says. 

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